2014 Argentina MotoGP Preview - A Long Awaited Visit To The Middle Of Nowhere
Why on earth would you organize a MotoGP race in what is effectively the middle of nowhere? The answer is as simple as it is obvious: money. Dorna are being well paid by the circuit to bring the three Grand Prix classes to the little town of Termas de Rio Hondo in the heart of the Argentinian pampas. (And in case you should start to rail against Dorna's greed, it is fair to point out that a significant part of that money will also go to the teams, to pay transport costs and to cover at least part of their annual budget. Some of that money, but not all.)
A more relevant question might be why would a circuit in the middle of nowhere pay Dorna a massive amount of money to come race there? If it's in the middle of nowhere, then surely they are unlikely to make back at the gate what they paid to Dorna to organize the race? They won't, but that is not necessarily the point. The circuit, after all, is not paying most of the fee. The vast majority of the cash (indeed, probably all of it) is being paid by the regional authorities, with help from the central government. The regional tourism promotion council is counting on the increased profile of the Santiago del Estero province attracting more visitors to the region, and to Argentina in general.
In essence, the Argentinian government and the Santiago del Estero province are making the same gamble as the province of Aragon did for the circuit at Alcañiz. They hope that by raising the visibility of the area to the outside world, more people will choose to visit, and that will bring more revenue to the region and boost the local economy. Studies of the MotoGP race at the Motorland Aragon circuit put the value of the event to local businesses at around 30 million euros, a return of around five to one on the sanctioning fee paid by the track. That includes some notional value of equivalent advertising spend, but despite that, it is money coming in to local businesses.
Of course, the fact that the Baja Aragon region where Alcañiz is located is at the heart of one of the most eerily beautiful parts of Spain helps make tourism to the region an easy sell. Santiago del Estero is in the middle of the pampas, a relatively flat and featureless region. It may have a certain beauty, but it is a very different place from the edge of the Maestrat in Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia.
Will the gamble pay off? Given the fact that Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi were mobbed by fans on Wednesday night as they went to a restaurant for dinner, the omens are good. The streets of the small town have been crowded with fans, a promising sign. Even well before the event, local accommodation was at a premium, some journalists and photographers who would normally attend nearly every race deciding not to go after a bout of price gouging by the locals. The press conference was a packed affair, with a lot of media from all over South America in attendance.
It's clear that South America is crying out for MotoGP, and that the region is delighted the series has returned to the continent. The manufacturers, too, are happy, being able to showcase their brands in one of their most important markets. Racing in in the middle of nowhere may seem like an odd choice at first, but there is sound business logic behind going there.
There are also good racing reasons for going to Termas de Rio Hondo, not least the circuit layout. Though hard to judge by looking at a track map, the circuit could well produce some very good racing. It is well suited to motorcycles, with a lot of fast flowing corners, and some challenging sections. There may be a few low-speed second-gear corners, but they are all integrated with faster and more flowing sections. The left-hander at Turn 2 may be relatively slow, but it opens up onto Turns 3 and 4, faster rights where speed builds on to the straight. Turn 5 is slow again, but it too is followed by a fast left sweeper. Turn 7 is tight, but opens up through Turn 8, then onto a technical section at Turns 9 and 10. The big left of Turn 11 goes on to the blisteringly fast Turn 12, where riders are braking for the final corner combination, two tight turns before heading back on to the straight. If riders are close together at the end, then positions will be decided there, with places to attack and counter attack.
When asked by Matt Birt of MCN, riders were quick to compare the circuit with Qatar, Mugello, even Phillip Island. And taking the speed of an ideal lap from a simulation by the circuit designer Jarno Zafelli, the track could be as fast as Phillip Island, and maybe even more so. Jorge Lorenzo's pole record at Phillip Island averaged 182.1 km/h. Zafelli's simulation tops 184 km/h.
Will the circuit be a Honda track or a Yamaha track? Qatar, Phillip Island, Mugello are all Yamaha tracks, favoring flowing speed over outright acceleration. The aggressive and abrasive nature of the track will also help the Yamahas, loading the Bridgestone rear tires enough to make the heat-resistant layer in the 2014 tires work properly. There should be no complaints about the rear tires from either Jorge Lorenzo or Valentino Rossi in Argentina.
Lorenzo badly needs a track to favor the Yamaha. After two disasters in a row, he desperately needs to get his season back on track. A strong result is crucial before heading back to Europe at Jerez and then Le Mans, two circuits which are more favorable to the Honda. Most of all, though, a strong result is crucial for Lorenzo himself. The first crash at Qatar may be considered a simple mistake, misjudging the fact that the tire was still too cool on the left hand side. The jump start at Austin was far worse, a rookie mistake caused by breaking his routine on the starting grid, a cardinal sin in racing. Lorenzo has been extremely agitated at both Qatar and Austin, looking worried and getting caught in fraught conversations with his crew. He will have to approach Argentina differently, searching for some mental calm, some focus and concentration to regain his composure and his confidence. If he can do that, he can take the fight to Marc Marquez. If he can't, then his season is heading south very, very rapidly.
His teammate could also benefit if the circuit turns out to favor the Yamahas. Valentino Rossi had a great start at Qatar, and a strong first half to the Austin race, before his front tire went off and left him dropping down the order. A podium at Austin would have been possible, Rossi believes, had his front tire held up. If tires are less of an issue in Argentina, he should be much closer to the front.
If the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit favors the Yamahas, what does that mean for the Repsol Honda men? For Marc Marquez, probably not much, as there is nothing that seems to faze the 2013 world champion at the moment. Marquez' only apparent weak point is his spectacular ability to nearly catch himself out. He nearly crashed during practice, then nearly ran wide at the final corner during the race. Whether Argentina is a Yamaha track or not, you can be certain that Marquez will be there.
Things will be tougher for Ducati at Argentina than they were at Austin. Dovizioso saved his tire in the early part of the race last time around, and was repaid with a podium in Texas while others suffered. The long, fast corners at Rio Hondo will once again expose the understeer that still plagues the Desmosedici, and which needs real changes to cure. But the Italian comes to Argentina brimming with confidence, and with a twinkle in his eye again. He lost that twinkle last year; that it has returned is proof enough of the progress Ducati has already made. Dovizioso will be joined in Argentina by Michele Pirro, Cal Crutchlow unable to race after injuring his hand in the race crash at Austin.
And the battle behind the factory men? The prospect of Argentina being a Yamaha track offers hope to the Tech 3 pairing of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. But their biggest challenge could potentially come from Aleix Espargaro, the NGM Forward rider strong at Qatar, boding well for Argentina. Smith has a score to settle with Stefan Bradl, after losing out to him at Austin in the final laps. Smith will be a man to keep an eye on in Argentina.
It has been 15 years since Grand Prix motorcycle racing last visited Argentina. That is far too long, for the fans, for the series, and for the manufacturers. Thank heavens for people foolish enough to build world class circuits in the middle of nowhere. We call such people visionaries. At least we do when we get things right.